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Clinton Checks In On Foundation’s Northeast Florida Health Initiatives

Former President Bill Clinton Tuesday took a tour of Orange Park Medical Center’s facilities and heard from community leaders about how Northeast Florida is dealing with the opioid crisis and addiction in general.

In a series of four stops within the medical center, Clinton got a firsthand look at addiction screening and prevention tools, prescription drug control and emergency response methods.

The visit was part of the 42nd president’s three-day tour of local projects the Clinton Foundation helps sponsor through the Clinton Health Matters Initiative. The initiative has partnered with local community groups since 2013 through its Prescription Drug Abuse Program after designating Northeast Florida as a “community transformation region.”

Clinton began his whirlwind trip at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland before meeting with young mothers who were a part of the First Coast’s Azalea Project. The project helps women kick drug habits and provides their children with resources for healthy living.

The former president then had the chance to witness a mock patient assessment using a tool called the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment program. SBIRT helps assess someone’s risk for substance abuse through a series of questions a patient can answer using their smartphones, under the supervision of a doctor.

Although employees were unable to unlock the machine do to a password error, Clinton told reporters the assessment tool should be standard for health care providers.

“Everybody in this room and all your relatives and friends could do something like this and have it totally confidential from the point of view of uninvolved outsiders, but totally accessible in terms of giving you warning flags, getting you into treatment… this is a huge deal,” he said. “We all worry about all the bad things technology can do. This is a good thing it can do.”

Throughout his tour, Clinton stressed the importance of expanding insurance coverage for treatment and prevention of opioid addiction. He spoke with pharmacists at the hospital who demonstrated the medical center’s prescription drug management system. The system keeps close track on all controlled substances prescribed to a patient and uses barcodes to ensure the patient actually receives them.

The pharmacists expressed the difficulty of funding such monitoring and expanding it across cities, counties and other states and integrating them to prevent doctor shopping.

Clinton ended his visit to OPMC by meeting with members of Drug Free Duval’s Northeast Florida Opioid Community Task Force and witnessing the donation of 500 units of the rapid overdose response medication NARCAN. The medicine helps reverse the effects of an overdose to give rescuers time to admit a patient to the hospital.

The former president said he’d like to see more education around the side effects of opioid use and the proper procedure for using NARCAN.

“The thing that always bothers me the most about all the work we’ve done on this is if you fall asleep and nobody’s ever told you that you can’t mix alcohol and any kind of opioid ‘cause it deadens the part of your brain that tells your body to breathe while you’re sleeping, then you’re all alone. You could be sitting in a sea of NARCAN and die,” he said.” I’m still shocked at what people don’t know.”

Clinton also addressed a growing change in law enforcement’s drug policy around the country, calling on mental health and other medical professionals to keep pressure on officials to treat the opioid epidemic as “the first drug epidemic in country treated as a public health problem instead of a criminal justice problem.”

“All drug problems are public health problems,” Clinton said.

Clinton concluded his visit to the First Coast Tuesday by stopping by the University of North Florida to discuss the foundation’s nutrition programs.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.